Five more days till Christmas!
And that means ‘Tis the Season for Holiday History Week with your friendly (and quite possibly very annoying) Neighborhood History Geek: aka (for this season only) The Ghost of Christmas Past!
So come with me and step back in time to Christmases long ago. Our first stop: 1500s Germany.
Oh Christmas Tree
For centuries before the first actual Christmas tree, people were fascinated by trees and shrubs that stayed green throughout the winter, when other trees lost their leaves and went bare. The Ancient Egyptians decorated their homes with palm leaves to honor the sun god Ra. Ancient Romans decorated their homes with evergreen boughs to celebrate Saturn, the god of agriculture. Ancient Celts and northern Europeans put evergreen boughs around their homes to symbolize eternal life and luck and Vikings in Scandinavian countries used evergreen boughs to commemorate the sun god Balder whose cherished plant was the evergreen. But it wasn’t until 1500s Germany when the Christmas tree as we know it today came to be, when Protestant Christians brought a tree into their home and decorated it with lights. Legend has it that Protestant forefather Martin Luther started the tradition of putting candles on a tree to symbolize the beauty of stars that glittered in the night sky above the evergreen trees.
By the early 1800s, Christmas trees had all but disappeared as a traditional Christmas decoration until a hand-drawn image of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children standing around a decorated Christmas tree made it into the London Times in 1846. The tree came back in style, and was even more popular as a commercial fad item than a Protestant Christian symbol; the reason people wanted it was, simply, because Queen Victoria had one.
Christmas trees became known to America in the 1830s with the Protestant Germans who arrived in Pennsylvania and after American East Coast society caught wind that Queen Victoria had a Christmas tree, it became popularized in the 1840s America just like it was in 1840s Europe, but the tradition of the Christmas tree was more embraced in America in the later 1800s. Until the 1880s and 1890s, the Christmas tree was only decorated with candle lights. After 1890 was when people started hanging ornaments and other items on the tree. Most people, even through the early 20th century, made their ornaments by hand and the German-Americans who decorated Christmas trees had their homemade ornaments but also included nuts and berries on their trees. Only the elite used imported ornaments. The early 20th century also saw the addition of popcorn and candy canes to the trees, and thanks to electricity, candles were replaced by electronic lights that could remain illuminated much longer and were more impressive. The introduction of Christmas lights even further popularized the Christmas tree, and by the 1920s and 1930s, Christmas trees became an item not only seen in the home, but also out of doors, outside in town squares and even in front yards. This opened the door for one of the most widely known American Christmas tree celebrations: the Rockefeller Center tree lighting, which first started in 1931 to brighten the Christmases of the Depression-affected American citizens; many of whom were without homes in which display their own Christmas trees, or they couldn’t afford to get a tree and/or decorate it.
Today, Christmas trees are seen in many homes nationwide and worldwide, and the Christmas tree industry here in America, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, averages $1.16-$1.2 billion per year, and more Americans still purchase real Christmas trees as opposed to fake ones, with the year 2014 seeing 33 million Americans buying real trees and only 17 million Americans who use fake trees for this beloved decoration.
I guess you just can’t beat the smell of pine around the holidays.
We all like our warm beverages around the holidays. For 15th century Germany, this was Gluhwein: a warm red wine spiced up with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. The recipe was brought over with the German immigrants in the early 1800s and has been even more spiced up over the decades.
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup white sugar
1 cinnamon stick
10 whole cloves
1 bottle red wine
Sprinkle of nutmeg (optional)
-In a saucepan, combine water, sugar, and cinnamon stick (I add a sprinkle of nutmeg for an extra kick). Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and then simmer
-Cut the orange in half, then squeeze the juice into the simmering sugar-water mixture. Push the cloves into both halves of the orange (push it into the peel parts), and place orange halves into the sugar-water. Continue simmering for 30 minutes until mixture is thick and syrupy.
-Pour in the wine and heat until steaming. Remove the clove-studded orange halves. Serve hot in mugs that have already been warmed with warm water. Cold glasses will break if hot drink touches them. Drink will be very hot, so be careful.
(To add: there is a non-alcoholic version to this. Just follow the same recipe above, but substitute the wine with 4 cups of apple juice + 2 cups black tea and add 1 lemon. Place clove-studded lemon halves with clove-studded orange halves in sugar-water mixture.)